Deadly experiment? British asylum centers criticized for ‘horrific’ desperation

TIn January, ambulances rushed to the former RAF airbase at Wethersfield in a remote part of Essex, now the Home Office’s largest asylum site, to deal with suicide attempts. Each time an asylum seeker was admitted to hospital. Both survived.

Acts of self-harm have been common since part of the 325-acre site, which first opened in 1944, was used to house refugees in July 2023.

It provides barracks accommodation where approximately 500 male asylum seekers from around the world sleep three to a room. They can leave the site, but are not allowed to work. It is about eight miles to the nearest town and some spend their days walking through the surrounding countryside with nowhere to go.

One man begged to be transferred to his heavily pregnant wife. His request was denied. She gave birth to a stillborn baby alone and only then was he moved.

Before he was sacked earlier this month, then Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration David Neal condemned the “overwhelming sense of hopelessness” at the site and warned there was an immediate risk of it descending into crime, arson and attacks on personnel.

An Iranian asylum seeker who fled because of his opposition to the government in Tehran said: “My world, which I hoped would light up again in this country, was plunged into darkness when I was transferred to a prison called Wethersfield.

“I was identified in Iran, I had to lock myself in remote rural houses for a while, and now here I have exactly the same feeling and the same memories have come back to me. I’m afraid I’ll die in this place.”

The Bibby Stockholm Ship in Portland, Dorset. Photo: Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images

Wethersfield is one of two major accommodation sites recently opened by the Home Office, along with the Bibby Stockholm ship, a hulk-like structure moored in Portland, Dorset.

Leonard Farruku months before his death

Both have not been in the news for a long time. Last December saw the suspected suicide of an Albanian asylum seeker, Leonard Farruku, 27 – a tragedy that occurred following the identification of potentially fatal legionella bacteria on the ship. MPs who recently visited said overcrowding was endangering the mental health of the men living there.

NGOs have described the Home Office’s policy of using mass accommodation sites for asylum seekers as a dangerous, untested political and social experiment. Critics say this approach will not save public money and instead leaves hundreds of people who have come to Britain for refuge at best in limbo and at worst at risk of suicide.

Ministers insist the policy is part of the solution to fix Britain’s broken asylum system. When the Home Office announced its plans for large-scale accommodation in the summer of 2021, officials said the plan was to reduce hotel use and instead provide asylum seekers with basic, safe accommodation while their claims were processed.

“The desperation coming out of Wethersfield is terrible,” said Katie Sweetingham of the charity Care4Calais. “In many cases, people who previously had no mental health problems before coming to Britain experience a rapid decline within weeks of arriving at the camp, to the point where they are now thinking about harming themselves or to take their medications. own life.”

Before the pandemic, the vast majority of asylum seekers were housed in shared housing. Some stay at this property and more of it is used. Although generally of poor quality – there are reports of collapsed ceilings, scurrying rodents and bedrooms colonized by black mold – asylum seekers can at least cook their own food, visit friends and family and participate in life of the refugees. local community.

When Covid arrived, tens of thousands of asylum seekers were placed in hotels due to the infection risks associated with housing people in close quarters. They became a visible target for far-right anti-migrant groups in a way they had never been before and were accused of living the life of luxury while hard-working Britons struggled. Anti-migrant campaigners accused asylum seekers of flocking to Britain just to get a room in a local Ibis.

Sensitive to this criticism, the government responded with plans for large-scale accommodation locations. The argument was that this way of housing the growing numbers of asylum seekers coming to Britain would be cheaper and act as a deterrent to those making the dangerous journey to Britain for economic reasons.

Asylum seekers protest at the Napier Barracks asylum site during the Covid pandemic in January 2021. Photo: Jamie Grierson/The Guardian

Napier Barracks in Folkestone was first out of the gate when the 0.4 hectare (1 acre) site opened to asylum seekers in September 2020 and could accommodate around 400 people. It started disastrously. Hundreds were infected during a massive Covid outbreak and the Supreme Court ruled that conditions there were so bad they were illegal.

RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire, the former home of the famous Dambusters, another planned mass accommodation venue, has yet to open. West Lindsey Local District Council has issued a stop notice to restrict Home Office construction work on the site and has taken legal action to prevent the Home Office from using it. Legal challenges are also underway regarding both Wethersfield and Bibby Stockholm, and an internal briefing by lawyers seen by the Guardian describes the sites as “racial segregation and quasi-apartheid”.

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Ministers have said little about how these mass accommodation sites have energized the far right, with activists organizing demonstrations and distributing leaflets that intimidate both asylum seekers and local residents.

Misbah Malik, a senior policy officer at Hope Not Hate, which challenges extremism, said in relation to the sites: “Our researchers have seen an increase in activity from far-right groups and individuals who plan to use this issue to spread hateful narratives. sow. , infiltrate communities and cause division. Despite raising the alarm about this, we have not seen any serious action from the government to address this.”

A protest banner outside the main entrance to the former RAF base in Scampton. Photo: Phil Noble/Reuters

Last summer, officials promised to house 3,000 people in mass accommodation sites by now, but so far there are none in Scampton, which is intended to house 2,000 asylum seekers, just over 500 in Wethersfield, which has a capacity of 1,700, and about 300 on the border. Bibby Stockholm, with a capacity of over 500. It has been reported that the government has no intention of opening more ships for asylum seekers, and it is understood that no port has expressed any enthusiasm about receiving them.

While the government insists large properties are cheaper than hotels, officials have not made public the full financial accounts. After the Legionella bacteria were found, a series of repairs at an unknown cost had to be carried out on the Bibby Stockholm ship to improve fire safety and the water system. The number of security staff at Wethersfield has been increased significantly, while the costs are also unknown.

Critics suspect not only that these sites are not cheaper, but that they are as much about the optics of cruelty to voters as they are about saving money. Nicola David, of the NGO One Life To Live, which campaigns against mass accommodation sites, said: “The ship and Wethersfield site, both reminiscent of Soviet-era gulags, send a strong message about punishing asylum seekers who claim to come here. The sites have also devastated the lives of local residents, both those who support asylum seekers and those who do not.”

One asylum seeker said: “We feel like we are being used in the conflict between politicians and as an advertisement for the British people.”

Charities working in the sector claim the sites are just part of the asylum conveyor belt, with the refrain ‘stop the boats’ at one end and Rwanda at the other. The government cannot yet claim success with either of these. In January 2024, 1,335 people crossed in small boats, just a few people down from the high of 1,339 in January 2022. And despite handing over hundreds of millions of pounds to the Rwandan government, the chances of getting one or more flights to the Rwandan government’s claim for East African land remains unclear after losses in the courts and international condemnation of the plan.

Asylum seekers on the ship Bibby Stockholm say the desperation among those on board is increasing by the day. “My mental health has been destroyed,” one said. “Every morning I wake up expecting to be deported to Africa. The government does not treat us as people with dreams and lives. We are just numbers.”

A Home Office spokesperson said officials were taking the welfare of asylum seekers “extremely seriously”.

“That’s why we have welfare officers on site 24 hours a day and all residents have access to a GP service from a local healthcare provider, including mental health support. A 24/7 Migrant Help helpline is available to raise any concerns.”